Jake Stanton did not mince any words as we met for the first time in anticipation of ice fishing for perch on Saginaw Bay.
“We’re going to fish like barbarians,” he said.
He handed me a pole. It was a simple jigging stick, made of a short length of cane, with a couple of pegs to serve as line holders. No reel, just a stick with a small eye on the end, outfitted with a six-pound test, high-visibility monofilament line and a small single-hook spoon with a plastic bead covering the bend in the shank.
“I was told that once in Canada because I fish with a stick and a string,” the 35-year-old army veteran/college student/perch-fishing aficionado explained. “This guy said, ‘Man, you fish like a barbarian.’
“That’s how I learned how to fish and I’m not going stop now,” Stanton continued. “From the time I can remember, I got dropped off on the ice with an auger, a scoop, and a stick and a string, and I have a hard time changing.”
And why should he? Stanton almost always gets them.
And he isn’t alone at it; fishing for perch with a jigging stick and a beaded spoon is the Saginaw Bay way to fish for perch and has been for many, many years.
The drill is simple: You drop the spoon to the bottom, adjust your line so the bait is an inch or two off bottom, then start jigging. When you get bit, you haul the fish out. That’s where the beaded spoon comes in; Stanton uses barbless hooks (as do a lot of Saginaw Bay beaded-spoon jiggers), so when the fish clears the ice, you can shake it off and drop the spoon back down immediately.
“You want to speed fish,” Stanton said. “As soon as you catch one you want to get that hook back down there because they travel in schools. Just bang it on the ice, the fish falls off, and get the bait back down.”
Of course, with barbless hooks you have to keep steady pressure on the fish.
You snooze, you lose.
Obviously, this technique works best when the fish are in the shallows, such as first ice and again at last ice, and the reason is simple; if you only have to pull the perch a foot or two through the water column to get it out, you can operate much more efficiently than if you have to bring it up from, say, 30 feet. And if you can go it with one move – set the hook and just keep coming with it – the barbless hook becomes much less of a liability.
“If you let a little bit of slack in the line they’ll fall right off,” Stanton said. “When you first start fishing like that it sometimes takes you a while to figure out how to get them out of the water without the fish falling off. Once you get used to getting those fish up, it’s no problem.”
Unfortunately, the fish we found that first morning on the Bay weren’t quite shallow enough to make it effortless. They were in nine feet of water. And that made flipping them out on the ice a little tricky for a first-timer like me. So I walked them out; when I stuck a fish I just kept steady pressure on it and walked back away from the hole until the fish cleared it, dropped the pole, walked back up to hole, kicked the fish away, dropped the spoon back into the hole, then pulled the pole back by the line. And this was not as efficient as Stanton was, who was wind-milling them in.
When Stanton stuck a fish, he reached and grabbed the line with his left hand, then took the tip of his pole and grabbed the line with that, swung it too his right, then grabbed then repeated the process until he had the fish through the ice, bounced it off the ice, dropped the spoon into the water again, then reversed the process, letting the spoon fall again to the bottom. The spoon was right back in the strike zone in seconds and if there was another perch there – as there usually was – he generally hooked that one, too.
I’ve got to admit it took me a little while to get the hang of it.
The spoons we used were simple: nickel, roughly tear-drop shaped, about an inch and a half long. We were using Guster spoons, which Stanton said are among the best that are made in the Bay area..
“They’re a little bit heavier so if you fish deeper water, they go down faster,” he said. “They’re shiny and they don’t tarnish or get rusty and I think they have a little better quality hook on them than some.
“The ones I use in Canada are three to four inches,” he continued. “You’re fishing 20 feet of water and it gets down there faster because it has more weight.”
Stanton said that the beaded-spoon trick doesn’t work everywhere.
“These beaded hooks work here, they work at Lake St. Clair, they work at Lake Simcoe (in Ontario), but I’ve been to Devil’s Lake (in North Dakota) and you can’t hardly catch anything on them there,” he said. “I think there are lot more shiners in the Great Lakes and Saginaw Bay, so I like silver hooks. But now that we’re getting a lot gobies – I’ve been doing better on bronze ones, too.”
We were fishing in an area with lots of weed beds, though Stanton said he tries to avoid them.
“I like a sandy bottom better than weeds,” he said. “Perch cruise around looking for schools of shiners. If you’re in the weed beds, that’s where the big predator fish are. I have pike snapping my line. And the perch can hide in the weeds, too; there’s less visibility for the fish to see your bait. You can draw them out of the weeds, but it seems like you never do as well.”
Stanton out-fished me about two-to-one that day. (And subsequently, when we tried the same thing again, he out-fished me by even an even bigger margin, something I expect is a combination of his experience and the fact that he’s probably a better fisherman than I am.) But I was intrigued and decided that he was really on to something. So I sought out some other beaded-spoon fishermen and learned from them, too.
My next tutor was Darin McGathy, proprietor of McGathy’s Hooks, makers of the Slab Grabbers, which are among the more popular beaded spoons on the Bay. It was last winter and we headed up to Lake Simcoe because, if you remember last winter, the ice was anywhere from sloppy to unsafe much of the season on the Bay. And though the water was deeper than where we fish for perch on the Bay, the principle was the same.
We started out in about 20 feet of water. I saw just the slightest twitch of my line, picked up on it, felt weight, and set the hook. Not too much later I had a 10-inch perch flopping on the ice.
I had a brand-new spoon, fresh out of the package, which is an issue for this kind of fishing as McGathy makes his spoons with barbed hooks and I hadn’t paid enough attention so when I got the fish on the ice, it didn’t fall off. I had to unhook it, which is not only a pain the patootie when both your hands are occupied, but it defeats the main attraction of beaded spoons fishing: speed. Because you don’t have to re-bait, you can get right back on those fish before they leave, allowing you to make hay while the sun’s shining, so to speak.
By the time I got my bait back down, I’d apparently taken too long – or there weren’t that many fish under me, who really knows? – as I didn’t hook another.
So we moved.
Unfortunately, that was the way it was all day. We fished deeper and shallower and caught one or two here and there, but never got on them the way this technique is designed for. By day’s end, we’d caught about 20 between us, and McGathy had many, many more than I did.
“This is the slowest fishing I’ve had here in a long, long time,” said McGathy, 51, who’s been fishing at Simcoe since he was in high school. “When it’s on fire, you can catch 25 or 30 in a half hour. But it’s not a miracle bait. It’s not a good bait when they’re not biting.”
It warmed up and rained overnight so the next morning there was enough water on the surface of the ice that we could practically swim. We started at what had been our best spot the previous day (in about 30 feet of water) and I hit a fish immediately, bounced it off the ice, dropped the spoon back down, and caught another. I had six on the ice in the first 30 minutes and McGathy had a few more than I did. When they quit, we moved around and caught one here, one there, then quit early rather than spend a whole day doing that. We had a few more than we did the day before, but enough for me to see what the technique is all about, which was the purpose of the mission.
It’s simple: lower the bait to the bottom, raise it a few inches up, and jig.
McGathy said you should jig it subtly – four or five quick jigs of a few inches – then pause.
“About 95 percent of the fish bite on the pause,” said McGathy, who’s been fishing this way ever since he’s been fishing. “Do whatever’s working for you – jig it three or four or five times, then pause for three or four or five seconds. Get your own rhythm going.”
When the fishing’s tough, you want to downsize your lure, said McGathy, who makes spoon that are anywhere from 1 1/4th inches to three inches and are adorned with several sizes of beads.
“Sometimes you have to use that 1 1/4th-inch bait in 35 feet of water,” McGathy said. “It takes a long time to get it down there, but you have to surrender to it. But I’ve also seen days when they’re not aggressive and I drop a big three-inch bait down there and they fire right up. Why, I don’t know.”
McGathy’s baits are available in four sizes, four different shapes and about a dozen different bead colors. The number of possible combinations is almost infinite. McGathy said sometimes little variations make a difference.
I got a good feel for how beaded spoons are supposed to work, but I won’t really appreciate the technique until I get on the fish when they’re really biting, McGathy said.
He said he’d call me this winter at first ice when the perch are really snapping. I can hardly wait.
- written by Robert Gwizdz